01: Two out of five American religious congregations would consider accepting public funds for their social service programs, according to a study presented at the recent conference of the American Sociological Association.
The San Francisco Chronicle (Aug. 24) reports that the findings send a mixed message to those seeking more of a role for churches in providing social services as the nation struggles to implement reforms in welfare. Under the “charitable choice'” provisions of the 1996 welfare reform law, it is now easier for faith-based groups to take federal money for child care and job readiness programs without watering down their spiritual message.
“There’s a social movement afoot to increase the amount of public money for social services run through congregations and other religious organizations,” said Mark Chaves, the head investigator in the National Congregations Study.
Yet Chaves found that more than half of 1,200 congregations questioned would still not consider accepting government funds. Fewer than five percent polled already take tax money for soup kitchens, homeless shelters and other services to the poor. Yet, even the percentage of churches saying they would take public funds could result in a big expansion of tax-supported, faith-based welfare. Proponents of a strict separation of church and state oppose the new charitable choice rules, and a legal challenge is expected to emerge soon somewhere in the country, writes Don Lattin. The survey, done by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, was conducted in the spring and summer of this year, with major funding from Lilly Endowment Inc.
Another survey presented at the San Francisco conference found that a vast majority of congregations already provide some form of social service without government funds. That survey, by Ram Cnaan of the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work, examined 111 congregations and found that 93 percent were serving the community. “Local congregations provide services ranging from food pantries and family programs to legal assistance and human rights activism,” Cnaan and his colleagues reported. “In an era of shrinking welfare allocations, religious organizations will continue to emerge as significant providers of social services.”
02: The influx of Northerners and other non-Southerners into the American South has not changed the strongly religious nature of the region, according to a recent study.
In fact, the University of North Carolina-based study found that people who move to the South are almost as religious as native Southerners. The Raleigh News-Observer newspaper (July 30) cites the study as showing that in such matters as belief in God, a literal reading of Genesis, and the possibility of possession by the devil, the attitudes of Southerners remain different from the rest of the U.S., despite population shifts in the region. The poll, which compared a survey of 844 Southerners with 413 people from other regions, found that 88 percent of Southerners believe in God, as opposed to 78 percent of non-Southerners.
People who move to the South become more religious, with such newcomers having the second highest level of religious devotion, after native Southerners. “There must be something about the South as a cultural environment that encourages higher levels of religiosity,” says sociologist Christian Smith, who conducted the survey for the UNC’s Institute for Research in Social Science.
03: Belief in God among leading natural scientists has declined drastically since early in this century, according to a recent study.
Those scientists at the top of their field in the natural sciences have long shown a greater rate of disbelief in God than scientists in general. In 1996, researchers Edward Larson and Larry Witham compared the belief and disbelief of scientists in 1914 with those in modern times. By replicating a survey of 1,000 scientists by psychologist James Leuba in 1914, Larson and Witham found little change in the belief patterns of modern scientists, with about 60 percent expressing disbelief or doubt in the existence of a personal God [see May `97 RW].
The second phase of Leuba’s survey asked leading scientists, or whom he called “greater scientists,” about their beliefs and found even higher rates of disbelief and doubt — with almost 70 percent expressing such views.
Larson and Witham also repeated Leuba’s second phase of the survey for an article in the journal Nature and found the rate of belief among “greater” scientists lower than ever–only seven percent expressed any such belief in a personal God. The article, which was reprinted in the Washington Times (July 30), notes that mathematicians registered the highest belief in God (14.3 percent) while biological scientists had the lowest (5.6 percent).
Larson and Witham defined “greater scientists” as those who were members of the National Academy of Sciences, similar to Leuba’s identification of such leading scientists who were member of the American Men of Science . Both Leuba’s and the recent study surveyed about 200 members of these groups.
04: A major study of the attitudes and loyalties of some 701 Catholics between 21 and 39 suggests they may strongly support major changes in doctrine and practice in the church.
As conducted by a panel of four specialists in the sociology of religion, led by Professor William Dinges of The Catholic University of America, those polled indicated that while their loyalty to basic Catholic doctrine remains reasonably intact, they have “a weakening institutional sense of Catholic identity.” Published in summary form in Commonweal magazine (July 17), the study challenges earlier works by scholars such as Andrew Greeley and John A. Coleman who had found little evidence of decline of loyalty to the traditional faith.
The study shows this group understands Catholicism to include three elements: a belief Christ is present in the Eucharist, charitable outreach to helping the disadvantaged, and devotion to Mary. The group showed less enthusiasm over identifying Catholicism with the existing institutional church, and little interest in identifying the faith with specific teachings such as capital punishment, abortion and priestly celibacy.
In reflecting on these findings, the authors suggest that the Catholic leadership will have to greatly improve its programs of education and ecumenical outreach. Also the hierarchy needs to differentiate between indispensable Catholic essentials and those matters which are matters of personal and pastoral moral or spiritual advice.
They add, however, that the new openness to other faith communities following Vatican II may prove “more lethal to maintaining a coherent Catholic identity that did its minority status of the past.
(Commonweal, 475 Riverside Dr., Rm. 405, New York, NY 10115) –By Erling Jorstad
05: In the ongoing research on the beneficial effects of religious belief on health, a recent study suggests a link between church attendance, Bible reading and blood pressure.
The study, conducted by Duke University Medical School and reported in the International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine (July), found that religiously active older people tend to have lower blood pressure than those who are less active. Among a sample of 2,391 individuals 65 years or older in an overwhelmingly Protestant area of North Carolina, it was found that people who attended religious services at least once a week and prayed and studied the Bible once a day had had blood pressures 40 percent lower than those who did not.
Associations between religious activity and blood pressure were particularly strong among African Americans and the “young elderly” (those 65 to 74 years old). One of the more surprising findings was that those who tuned into religious television and radio programming had higher blood pressures than those who did not.
06: Church attendance in England may be higher than secular surveys have reported, according to a recent poll conducted in the Anglican diocese of Ripon.
While a recent debate in America concerns whether the polls have overestimated church attendance, the opposite is the case in England, according to a report in the National Catholic Register (July 12-18). The poll, conducted by the diocese, consisted of a head count of those attending 110 of the diocese’s 159 parishes during last April and May. The poll showed that during a four-week period, 27,947 individuals were involved in worship at least once, compared to secular surveys showing an average attendance of only 11,548.
Even if those attending occasional services, such as funerals and weddings, were removed from the total, the number of attenders would still be 18,362. The Ripon findings, which included both urban and rural churches, suggests that people are not losing contact with the church, but they may be changing their pattern of involvement, such as attending midweek services or going less frequently.